I recently finished reading The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. The premise is fairly neatly summed up by the title of the book: Jacobs spends a year reading and trying to follow–as literally as possible–Biblical rules. The quest’s purpose ostensibly goes beyond the ‘gimmick factor.’ Jacobs frequently discusses spirituality in the context of these rules, and his own attempt to possibly feel more spiritual, as a result of following rules.
My own living experiment didn’t take a year and unfortunately didn’t land me a book contract, although I did write about it. In summer 2012, I lived by myself in a little trailer on a small property in Western Maryland which my parents were nice enough to lend me for the summer. I raised my own rabbits and chickens and garden. Having never really lived alone, gardened independently, or done my own butchering, there was a lot of learning in the experiment.
If it stinks of Walden, that’s because Thoreau was my role model in the whole thing. That said, I wasn’t trying to follow him to the letter. The thing about living experiments is that they aren’t science experiments. There’s no control, and there’s no independent observer. You are your subject, and as such, you’re incredibly biased.
The core message of Walden, I think is to live attentively. While Jacobs doesn’t have this goal, per se, it is an end result–and this is really the thing about living experiments. If you decide to do something drastically different with your life, you pay more attention to it. You can simultaneously become more introspective and more outward-looking, more adept at examining your own priorities as well as seeing clearly what’s going on around you.
Throughout the entire Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs attempts to follow Biblical laws as literally as possible. (More complicated: he tries to follow both Old and New Testament law, simultaneously.) Although this makes sense for his book, it doesn’t make sense to me in terms of his spiritual quest.
As he gets tangled up trying to find the right way to modernly practice animal sacrifice (or to find some kind of escape clause), there are animals being sacrificed for no moral high ground in factory farms every day. Jacobs feels really accomplished one day when he helps an elderly woman across a street. Often, his quest for Biblical literalism raises conflict in his personal relationships. He seems to get some positive messages out of his experience, but he does a lot of weird things that mostly seem like “weird things I did to write this book,” at the end of the day.
What the book (and its popularity) underscored for me was the way that ‘the public’ is by and large searching for rules. Perhaps this is why there is such an emphasis on them in the Bible itself, and perhaps this is why they’re coded as law, not guidelines. There’s something called decision fatigue, and it makes sense that we don’t want to be making moral choices all the time. Following a set of rules we’re told (or we believe) are Good makes this so much easier.
I couldn’t help but feel that this book was critically confused, though. Jacobs seemed to be unsure himself whether he was just going along with the idea as a gimmick, whether it was supposed to cause genuine (but personal/individual) spiritual experience, or whether following the rules was just supposed to make him a better–not necessarily more spiritual–person. More broadly, I think this is something we’re confused about culturally, when we make attempts to be religious. Do we follow a set of rules and hope it “works”? Do we look for a sense of personal enlightenment? Or are we “just” trying to be better people?